20 Lessons Learned From a Year of Running an Agency

Download Now: New Client Intake Form
Ross Beyeler
Ross Beyeler




One of our agency's core values is continual learning and self-improvement. It's something we've baked into our culture through a few key practices, but most notably, it shows in our meeting called Weekly Reflections. This is where we reflect on what we've learned during the course of the previous week.

One year ago, we decided to start documenting these lessons, and we've turned this into a list of radical transformations, obvious yet neglected habits, ugly truths about our own shortcomings, and fun reminders for running a business.

If you're looking for inspiration for how to change your processes, transform your outlook, or improve your client relationships, here's a list of 20 takeaways from a year of learning:

1) There's a difference between finding great projects and great clients.

A great project is one that fits your firm's core competency, has a reasonable budget and timeline, and will deliver some "bragging rights" once it's complete. A great client is one that respects your process and expertise, is patient but deliberate, knows what they want from a project, and treats people reasonably. Ideally, you want both with every new opportunity, but this is not always the case. It's important to recognize what situation you're dealing with going into a new engagement. It's also important to weigh the compromise of a great project and bad client versus a bad project and great client.

2) Everyone has a job, and it's sales.

Who handles sales in your agency?

This is a typical question I hear from peers. Unfortunately, the response should be "everyone," not just your founder or sales manager. In an agency of any size, but particularly boutique or smaller agencies, it's important to recognize that your entire team plays a role in the sales process. Although everyone might not actually be involved in writing a proposal or pitching, every team member interacting with potential customers and representing your brand has the opportunity to reinforce or damage your position as an agency. Ensure that the same story about your firm is told by your entire staff.

3) Don't present your work, sell your work.

Selling doesn't just happen at the start of a new client relationship. It occurs during every client interaction. When showcasing a design, walking through a storyboard, or pitching a campaign, you need to sell it. They might have bought into your process or portfolio when they first signed up, but you have to convince them they made the right decision every day. In addition, the client isn't always aware of the though process behind an idea. Sell your vision during each step of a project. 

4) Define expectations ...

Whether you're starting a project with a new client or simply having a design review on a Tuesday, it's important to define expectations. Communicate the goal of the project, and define what success looks like. If you are on a client call, tell him what the point of the conversation is. 

The more you can define expectations, the more you can expect definitive success. In addition, realize that expectations management is a two-way street. You client should set expectations and meet those as well. If they can't deliver on their end, how can your firm deliver on your end? 

5) ... and then defy those expectations.

Once you've defined expectations, it's time to defy them. Beat the estimated delivery date or project budget. Come to the table with three concepts instead of two. Create a unique experience during your next meeting. Bring up an idea they mentioned at the beginning of the project. Demonstrate that you're there to do more than just your job; you're there to create success and a great experience for your client.

6) Have pride in your work.

Recognize that everything you put out as an agency is a mark of your values, ideas, and reputation. Just because that support project is only going to take three hours doesn't mean you can skip your standardized quality process. Treat every project, no matter how big or small, as if it were a showcase piece. Although sometimes we have to tackle projects that aren't the ideal great-project-and-great-client combination, they should still be delivered with pride.

7) Take a stance.

Part of having pride is having a position. Your agency has expertise, a unique process, or a style that impressed your client. That's why he wanted to work with you. Use this "uniqueness" as the backbone of your decision-making. Don't just explain what you did to get to a final product, rather discuss why you did what you did. The why should stem from your position as an agency along with your intimate understanding of the client's goals and target audience. Take a stance in your projects, and don't budge if you feel your client is making a decision outside of this vision.

8) Share the process.

As a way to tell the "why" story, don't be afraid to open up your process with the client and share some of the material on the cutting room floor. Delivering creative services is a complicated business fraught with trial and error. By sharing the evolution of your work, you tell a story as to where the final product came from. This helps provide context for your "why" and let's the client understand your vision. 

9) Dig deep.

Whether it's your client or a team member, the collaborative process is often undemocratic. Type A account managers and CEOs regularly dominate discussions and email threads, leaving the more subdued voices in the background. Ensure that everyone's ideas and input are incorporated by digging just a little deeper during conversations. Ask the same question twice in a different fashion. Call out people individually. Ask for feedback after a meeting. Be sure that all voices are heard, particularly on the client's side. Don't let your gregarious creative director intimidate a client into accepting something that doesn't actually meet his needs.

10) Trust your gut.

Years of experience and hundreds of projects under your belt will help you develop valuable instincts. Although these instincts shouldn't be let loose on every aspect of the project, stay in tune with them when evaluating if client is a good fit or if they'll respond well to a potential deliverable. If things seem off about a meeting, find a way to address the problem as soon as possible. A small concern from the client should not develop into a larger problem.

11) Stay organized.

There is nothing more exciting to an account manager than having the most recent codebase overwritten or the latest version of the design stored on a designer's MacBook he left at home. Setup smart infrastructure for your agency, and use cloud-based file management tools for document storage, version control, and collaboration. Be sure notes are taken diligently during all meetings and stored centrally in a project management tool such as Basecamp.

12) Standardize your workflow.

Quality stems from consistency, and consistency comes from processes. Now, not every function in a creative business can be standardized. You won't be able to write a set of instructions for creating an award-winning design, but you could probably break down the steps for wireframing, creating design templates, content, etc. Find a way to streamline your workflow by creating a checklist for every function and role within your agency. Naturally, those checklists will evolve as your process evolves, but they will help lay the foundation for consistency in deliverables as well as provide a great framework for onboarding new team members.

13) Become a "Nervous Nancy."

Many times, the first 90% of a project goes swimmingly, and then one week before launch, things fall apart. It's the final stretch of a project when last-minute feedback, unexpected change requests, missing permissions, and other unforeseen issues can throw things entirely out of whack. Define expectations clearly, and use checklists to help during this process, but more importantly, always add some sort of buffer (in both time and budget) to handle the last 10%.

14) Get a second pair of eyes.

You might have designed an incredible user interface or just coded a beautiful JavaScript function, but just because you're satisfied doesn't mean the job is done. Always plan to check the quality of the work, no matter how excited you are about it. In fact, the more excited you are, the more likely you should get a second pair of eyes to review.

15) Talent requires management.

Having a team of great designers and developers doesn't always mean you'll see great work produced. Every project needs someone playing the role of the coordinator to ensure all of the pieces are moving in sync and in the direction of the final project goal. A good project manager or account manager can mean all the difference in the success of your projects.

16) Manage your time.

Although your agency might have a project manager or account manager to help with the high level coordination, all team members must be personally responsible for managing their time. Things can be hectic. Projects can become complicated. But your team needs to know how to prioritize and stay productive. Encourage employees to plan their day, tackle projects in large blocks, track their time, and minimize distractions so they can deliver projects on time. 

17) Take a breath.

When things get crazy, it's alright to take a step back. In fact, the moment when your agency seems to be in total chaos might be exactly when you need to detach yourself and take that delayed vacation you've been dreaming about. Taking the time to gain perspective on a difficult project or a business challenge can be far more productive than wallowing in the insanity.

In addition, it's important to remember that no matter how busy things get, you need to take time out to celebrate your victories and accomplishments as a firm.

18) Don't take a vacation before your vacation.

Before you take that much-needed vacation, ensure you've got a plan in place. Even better, start every project off by determining when potential timing conflicts could be an issue -- both internally and on the client's end. Is the key client decision-maker going to be gone during your project kickoff meeting? A little extra planning upfront can help prevent frustrating situations in the future.

19) Stay healthy.

More important than the occasional vacation, is the day-to-day health of you and your team. Are you perpetuating a culture of health or hindrance? Do all company outings involve beer and barbecue? Are there any company-sponsored fitness or nutrition programs available? Do you encourage staffers to take a break?

Realize the cost of people on sick leave, and consider about how your firm can help employees lead healthier lives.

20) Grow slow.

Finally, realize that you're always playing the long game when it comes to growth and improvement. It's a matter of making small gains every single day. Don't try to reinvent the business on a monthly basis.

Create a plan for how your agency can adopt these lessons during the course of a year. Perhaps, you can tackle one each month. Regardless, it's better to define and stick to a few goals, rather than trying to accomplish everything only to fail.


Related Articles

Determine quickly if a prospect is a good fit for your agency.

    Marketing software that helps you drive revenue, save time and resources, and measure and optimize your investments — all on one easy-to-use platform